Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Hannah Fuhlendorf M.A, LPC
What Is Disordered Eating & How Is It Treated?
Published Oct 15th, 2021 & updated on Jan 27th, 2022
TW: Disordered eating, eating disorders
Disordered eating, similar but different from eating disorders (and not any less dangerous), is all too common amongst people of all sizes and mobilities. While diet culture would lead us to believe that disordered eating only exists among thin people and poor health only exists among large people, the truth is that anyone can experience disordered eating and/or an eating disorder.
We’re going to outline alllll the things that go along with disordered eating, how it differs from eating disorders, and how to treat it. Whether trying to determine if you’re experiencing disordered eating, or you’re worried about a loved one, we hope this information helps you better understand disordered eating so that you can find appropriate support and medical assistance.
Diet Culture & Body Image
The presumption that someone’s size is an indicator of their overall health is a thought that is proving to be hard to shake despite extensive research over the past 20+ years indicating the contrary. And, this isn’t an issue specific to just females. In fact, the Canadian Medical Association Journal says men are constantly overlooked for treatment even though they make up 25% of all eating disorder cases!
Similarly, heavier people are not just fat-shamed by society as a whole, but actually commonly overlooked and undiagnosed by medical personnel too despite the fact that the majority of people with eating disorders are not considered clinically underweight. Hannah Fuhlendorf — a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate(LPCC), National Certified Counsellor (NCC) and DiveThru Therapist — spoke to this online.
“When fat people experience serious illness, no matter what kind of illness it is, it is not mourned as a senseless or tragic injustice, like we hear so often when the subject is thin. It is seen as penance for the very existence of our fat bodies. This is one of the most vile and insidious messages of fatphobia and, when we hear it, it needs to be called out and rejected.“
In opposition to this, thin people are often automatically presumed to be healthy when, in fact, they could be dealing with a host of medical issues. Celebs like Selena Gomez, Gina Rodriguez, Sarah Hyland, Nick Cannon, Michael Phelps and Nick Jonas have chronic medical conditions that you might not suspect based on their “ideal” appearances.
Disordered eating is no different. It can affect anyone regardless of size or mobility and it plays heavily on a person’s mental and physical health. So, let’s go over what “disordered eating” means.
What Is Disordered Eating?
Diet culture plays a HUGE part in the development of disordered eating because it encourages dietary restriction and the idealization of thinness. But, dieting doesn’t actually work. Weight that is lost intentionally is almost always gained back very fast as the body attempts to restore and heal itself from the stress of restriction. It has nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with our body’s sophisticated means of ensuring our survival. Your body doesn’t know what a diet is. It doesn’t care about your subscription to Weight Watchers or Noom. All it knows is that it’s being forced to use its emergency fuel. As a result, it goes into crisis mode and slows your metabolism significantly in order to keep you from starving and stores up even more fat reserves for the future in case it ever encounters famine again.
Additionally, the experience of dieting often fosters a suuuuper unhealthy relationship with food! This unhealthy relationship is what is called disordered eating. It’s characterized by irregular, controlling, restrictive, or obsessive eating behaviours, and it has a big impact on overall health and quality of life!
There’s a misconception that disordered eating only affects young, white women — but it defs doesn’t discriminate by age, race, or even weight. And it shows up in a lot of harmful and unhealthy ways!
Disordered Eating Symptoms
Disordered eating and eating disorders appear very similar, but the key difference between them is degree. While many of the symptoms and eating patterns of disordered eating are the same as those of eating disorders, they are not practiced as regularly or as severely. The symptoms of disordered eating are more sporadic, meaning it doesn’t quite meet the threshold of a clinical eating disorder. This also makes it harder to diagnose!
Physical symptoms can include:
- Stomach pains (abdominal cramps, constipation, acid reflux, etc.)
- Fainting and feeling dizzy, weak, or tired — especially when standing up.
- Changes in bowel movements and menstrual cycle.
- Changes in the condition of skin, hair, nails and teeth.
- Noticeable weight fluctuations, either gaining or losing.
Emotional symptoms include:
- Being preoccupied with food intake, exercise, weight, and dieting.
- High awareness of numeric indicators such as: counting calories, macros, food type percentages, calories burned, time spent exercising, etc.
- Self-esteem is based on body image, size, or shape and the number on the scale.
- Feeling uncomfortable eating certain types of food or any food around others.
- Performing food rituals or excessive exercise.
- Frequently looking in the mirror (known as body checking) or stepping on the scale.
- Mood swings and trouble concentrating.
Disordered Eating Patterns
Disordered eating shows up in many different ways, just like diets come in many different forms! You may choose to cut out food groups, count calories, fast for non-religious reasons, or force yourself to keep portions so small that they don’t fully satiate you. ALL of these are examples of disordered behaviours! Other disordered eating patterns include:
- Restricting major food groups (ie. carbs or fats) and labelling certain foods as “bad” or “unsafe.”
- Using steroids or creatine to enhance athletic performance and appearance.
- Using laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or diet pills to lose weight (purging).
- Skipping meals or taking much smaller portions than are needed to satisfy your hunger.
- Fasting or chronic restrained eating.
- Swapping out solid food for liquid meals.
- Removing food from the environment or tampering with food to make it inedible.
- Binge eating followed by induced vomiting.
Risks Of Disordered Eating
When you live with disordered eating for a long period of time, it can actually lead to a lot of other problems! First and foremost, it can lead to a clinical eating disorder — this includes anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorder otherwise not specified (as listed in the DSM V). But there are additional risks that may not be as clear-cut, like:
- Osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become more fragile.
- Fatigue and poor sleep quality.
- Constipation and/or diarrhea.
- Headaches and muscle aches.
- Esophageal deterioration.
- Strain on the heart and other vital organs.
- Anxiety and depression.
Escalation of these symptoms is actually the cause for the high mortality rate associated with eating disorders. The Harvard Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders reported that approximately 10,200 people die as a result of eating disorders each year. That’s one person every 52 minutes! It’s horrifying but totally understandable given the state of the weight debate in North America. Hannah explains:
“A person’s overall health is composed of about a thousand different factors. And whatever your definition or your measurement of health is, you can lose it in an instant. Often due to reasons that are unforeseeable. Health is not a thing you can guarantee or wrestle into submission by sheer force of will. And pretending that health is solely a result of personal choices is not only untrue, but incredibly ableist. That narrative places shame and ridicule on people at the worst, most terrifying moments in their lives when they should be surrounded by care and support.”
So, with a society and medical system that is only beginning to adapt, how can someone get help? Here are some options.
Treatment And Support
If you think you may be struggling with disordered eating, or recognize the signs in someone you love, it’s important to act fast! When disordered eating becomes an ingrained habit, it’s MUCH harder to address and break the cycle.
If you aren’t the one with a disordered eating condition and want to ensure you’re doing all you can not to further the messages and ideals that create them, Hannah has some helpful guidance for you:
“Stop commenting on people’s bodies, good or bad. Every single time someone complimented my weight loss, they were fueling my eating disorder. Not just some of the time. Not just when they did it in a “bad” way. Every. Single. Time.
I went from being scorned and abused for my body to being constantly praised and admired for making it smaller. That sort of praise is intoxicating especially when you’ve gone your whole life without it. And it reinforced every twisted, toxic belief I had about thinness. It verified my belief that thinness was the key to love, success, community, happiness, and fulfillment. Every single compliment made me believe that lie more and more and more…
It is not appropriate to comment on another person’s body, whether compliment or criticism. Because each comment is transactional. It either adds or subtracts the perception of worth to/from that individual based on how closely their appearance aligns with sexist, fatphobic, racist beauty ideals. Even if you’re paying someone a compliment, it just means that you think they’re succeeding at a rigged game.“
If you are struggling with disordered eating, here are 5 ways you can receive support and seek treatment.
1. Attend Therapy
A mental health professional can help you in achieving body acceptance, explain the psychological issues behind disordered eating and explain how to eventually (once the physical symptoms of an ED have subsided) practice intuitive eating to respect the body’s natural hunger signals. Psychotherapy plays a big part in breaking down complex relationships with food and diet culture.
A therapist will also provide you with coping strategies to use when you are having down days or rough moments.
2. Find a Doctor That Listens
If you already have a great doctor that actually listens to you then you are already one step ahead! If you don’t, it is vital to find someone who will listen and provide treatment and support without judgement. It fucking sucks that it’s up to each of us to find a doctor who will ACTUALLY listen before throwing out the good ol’ “have you thought about diet and exercise?” (As if your body is experiencing a simple technical issue and you just need to unplug it and then plug it back in.) But good and thorough docs DO exist and they can be literal life-savers! So, put in some time to find yourself a doctor who is as invested in a solution as you are.
If you are too frustrated or nervous to do this alone (SO understandable!) then ask someone you trust to help you in your search. Have a parent, partner, or close friend tag along to your first couple of appointments. Sometimes they can vouch for you even better than you would because they are coming from a clearer headspace (and won’t put up with someone gaslighting or dismissing you).
3. Educate Yourself & Others
You will learn a lot about yourself and your condition as you speak with therapists and doctors. And, if you have the energy, you can also find a lot of resources online. As always, be careful what you pay attention to and where the information is coming from so that you don’t give toxic, or inaccurate, information a free room in your brain. Here are a few resources we recommend:
- American Psychological Association
- NEDIC (Canadian) or NEDA (American)
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Health At Every Size
For a more interactive experience learning about disordered eating, check out Hannah’s course “Disordered Eating: What Is It and How Does It Show Up?” in the DiveThru app. She teaches the fundamental elements of disordered eating, covers various eating disorders, and talks about what treatment and recovery look like.
And, if you’re comfortable, remember to share all of this newfound information with others. Increasing awareness of disordered eating and the pitfalls of diet culture (and weight-focused treatments) will slowly start to make a difference in the societal mindset.
4. Practice Daily Body Gratitude
Hannah recommends this daily body gratitude exercise that has been helpful for her. Repeat these affirmations outloud for yourself.
Thank you for my brain which houses my thoughts and my dreams.
Thank you for my face which allows other people to experience my emotions and my thoughts visually.
Thank you for my arms which allow me to hug my friends.
Thank you for my chest which supports my body, and my heart which pumps blood.
Thank you for my stomach, which expands and contracts and makes space for me.
Thank you for my legs, which help me walk and run and stand and get from place to place.
Thank you for existing.
5. Follow Wisely
Choose wisely when following people on Instagram and TikTok. The body positivity movement has been largely co-opted by thin, white women (many pushing diet and exercise regimes) who typically aren’t fully informed on the complexities of body politics and the harms of fatphobia. Instead of giving them space on your feeds, find accounts that are about body neutrality/acceptance and self-care. This article has a BIG list of recommendations for who to follow!
You are beautiful and incredible and you deserve to feel like it! We hope this information helps you better understand disordered eating so that you can find appropriate support and medical assistance for yourself or loved ones.
If you, or someone you know, is in imminent danger, call 911 (or your local emergency number) immediately.